English Players in Italy: Herbert Kilpin
“…a magic name, which moved the first passionate crowds to sporting delirium…a name which encapsulates the history of our football.” An extract published in Lo Sport Illustrato, 1.11.1916, in John Foots Calcio: A history of Italian football
In the 1880’s, a 13-year-old boy by the name of Herbert Kilpin took part in the foundation of a small Nottingham amateur football club named after the Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi. It was the beginnings of an Anglo-Italian love affair that would revolutionise Calcio. At the turn of the century, Kilpin had settled in Italy and it was there that he secured his name in history, becoming one of the charter members of A.C. Milan.
The Rossoneri are behemoths of world football. The logo adorning their shirt reads: ‘the club with the most world titles’. This epithet may be under threat from Egyptian side Al Ahly however there is no doubting the international prestige of A.C. Milan. However had it not been for a lace-maker from Nottingham, the landscape of World and Italian football may have taken an entirely different shape.
Much like James Richardson Spensley, Kilpin can be regarded as a pioneer and father of Calcio. In 1891, Kilpin migrated to Turin in order to work for Edoardo Bosio, an Italian-Swiss textile merchant who also founded Internazionale Torino. A keen footballer, the Englishman played for the team and during his time at Internazionale Torino he took part in the first two editions of the Italian Championship, losing on both occasions to Spensley’s Genoa.
In 1897 the expatriate journeyed east to Milan. Two years later, having indulged in a heavy drinking session in the Fiaschetteria Toscana tavern, Kilpin and some fellow compatriots decided to introduce the sport they loved to the Milanese people. The foundations were laid and in 1899 Milan Football and Cricket Club were born.
Kilpin soon became a magisterial figure, and under his captaincy A.C. Milan won their first title in 1901. Nicknamed ‘Il Lord’ he was one of the first utility players in Italian football, alternating between roles in defence, midfield and attack. It is said he also patented the Rossoneri’s iconic red and black stripes, a choice he arrived at after he allegedly remarked:
“We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire, and black, to invoke fear in our opponents.”
Whether this is the origin for one of A.C. Milan’s nicknames – Il Diavolo (The Devils) – is hazier. According to John Foot, Kilpin’s relatives argue that it was his Protestantism in a Catholic country which led to the sobriquet. One certainty is that Kilpin was no angel. By all accounts his peccadilloes included being partial to a few drinks and abandoning his own marriage party to play a game in Genoa. Renowned Italian national coach Vittorio Pozzo claimed Kilpin used to keep a bottle of ‘Black and White’ whisky in a hole behind the goal. In typically British fashion, his alleged justification was that the only way to forget conceding a goal was to drink a sip of the hard stuff.
Kilpin was Milan’s first coach, captain and superstar. Despite only playing 17-championship games between 1899 and 1906, the Englishman has been etched into club folklore. He scored seven goals and under his tenure the Diavolo won their first three titles. Before his death in 1916, Kilpin bequeathed a series of anecdotes about the early game. They highlight how different things were from today. In one such story he reveals that during A.C. Milan’s first ever match, their goalkeeper brought a chair onto the pitch and sat cross legged, smoking a series of cigarettes as he watched a surfeit of goals fly in at the other end. Eventually his boredom got the better of him and Kilpin recalls swapping positions after his teammate had asked if he could get involved in the action. The goalkeeper scored the final goal in a 20-0 drubbing.
During the 1990’s an amateur historian and dedicated Milanista named Luigi La Rocca tracked down Kilpin’s grave in the city’s Municipal Cemetery. In honour of one of their founders, A.C. Milan paid for a new tombstone and he was re-buried in Milan’s picturesque monumental graveyard. On the tribute at Kilpin’s grave it reads ‘Rossonero L’eternita’ – ‘Red and Black for eternity’.
The legacy of Milan’s Anglo-father remains; the club retains its English name and you can still find Kilpin T-shirts on sale outside the San Siro on match days. In a Champions League tie against Barcelona in February 2013 the Curva Sud Milano produced a gigantic banner of Kilpin proudly standing in his archaic red and black shirt; with the date 1899 and the message ‘La Storia Siamo Noi’ (We are the history).
Although Kilpin may have been the antithesis of the modern day professional, he has truly achieved cult status among Milanisti, accompanying the likes of Gianni Rivera, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and a host of others. This makes him one of the most illustrious Englishman ever to kick a ball on the Italian peninsula.
By Luca Hodges-Ramon @LH_Ramon25